Current Problems


Plastics industry treats Indigenous lands as ‘sacrifice zones’ 

April 25, 2024

Canada’s National Observer: A sign for the Aamjiwnaang First Nation Resource Centre is located across the road from NOVA Chemicals in Sarnia, Ont., on April 21, 2007. (CP PHOTO/ Craig Glover) Listen to article

Days after the Aamjiwnaang First Nation issued an emergency alert due to high benzene levels in the air, members from the front-line community are in Ottawa to push world governments to give Indigenous nations a seat at the table as negotiations for a global plastics treaty unfold.

Benzene is a molecule used in chemical manufacturing to produce certain types of plastics that is highly toxic and a known carcinogen. Speaking at a press conference Wednesday morning on the sidelines of the plastics treaty negotiations, spokespeople from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the Society of First Nations, and Keepers of the Water said Indigenous nations, like Aamjiwnaang First Nation located in Ontario’s Chemical Valley, are the victims of environmental racism.

“Just last week, elevated benzene levels in the air from the Ineos Styrolution facility caused several members of our community to fall ill. This is not acceptable, nor is it an isolated event,” said Aamjiwnaang First Nation elected councillor CJ Smith-White in a statement. “Our people, the original people here, the Anishinaabe, have been exposed to environmental racism for more than 100 years.

“Our community and our lands have become a sacrifice zone for the benefit of industry.”

There are 62 large industrial facilities in or near Sarnia that represent 40 per cent of Canada’s chemical industry. These sites are responsible for millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and have made the area Ontario’s worst pollution hot spot. It’s been dubbed Chemical Valley as a result.

Representatives from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the Society of First Nations, and Keepers of the Water said that as countries negotiate a global plastics treaty aimed at eliminating plastic pollution by 2040, Indigenous Peoples need a seat at the negotiating table or risk slipping through the cracks.

The treaty is currently being negotiated in Ottawa at the fourth of five sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4). INC-4 is under the United Nations system, which involves nation-states, rather than Indigenous nations, negotiating how the treaty will work. Indigenous participation in climate change and environmental diplomacy has long been challenged for failing to uphold Indigenous rights.

“Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s call for Canada to fulfil its commitment under [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and address plastic pollution is at the centre of Canada’s approach in negotiations at INC-4 being led by Minister [Steven] Guilbeault,” said a spokesperson for his office. “Minister Guilbeault met with Indigenous and front-line communities, including the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, to ensure their voices are heard and reflected in discussions and negotiations at these international plastics negotiations.

“Indigenous Peoples must have a seat at the table,” the spokesperson added. “Canada is pushing for an ambitious and inclusive treaty that will help keep plastics out of the environment, for the benefit of Indigenous Peoples and all people in Canada.”

In a statement, Aamjiwnaang First Nation elected councillor Janelle Nahmabin said one reason her nation is at the plastics treaty negotiations is because part of the Anishinaabe way of thinking is to consider the impacts on seven generations ahead. 

“Aamjiwnaang First Nation wants to work collaboratively with state governments to create a healthier tomorrow for generations to come,” she said. “Indigenous Peoples must be active participants in the design and implementation of the plastics treaty.

“We — like everyone — have the right to a healthy environment and the results of these negotiations should include the duty to prevent exposure to hazardous substances.”

According to the Yellowhead Institute, Chemical Valley and its related health impacts are a direct result of settler colonialism because the land, water, air, plants and animals are treated as resources to be exploited at the expense of Indigenous rights.

“Chemical Valley is one of many instances of permission-to-pollute colonialism, which Aamjiwnaang First Nation are experts in understanding and confronting,” reads a report published last year from the Yellowhead Institute and the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. “Canada’s permission-to-pollute policies are reflected in unregulated abuse of land and life, but also insidiously in the lack of information that companies provide to Indigenous communities about the true extent of their polluting activities.”

Companies operating in the area include NOVA Chemicals, Imperial Oil, Suncor, Shell and others. The companies send notifications when equipment malfunctions, when flaring excess gas, when there are spills, as well as other issues, but the report found notifications often fail to contain helpful, easy-to-understand information people need.

One notification sent by Imperial Oil in February 2021, for example, reads, “A CAER Information Code 8 has been issued by Imperial. There was an equipment malfunction during the startup of a process unit. Downwind air monitoring so far has not detected elevated readings.”

The report argues this is not helpful.

“What is happening? What does Code 8 mean? What equipment malfunctioned? What particular process is involved, and what happens when it starts up? What kind of chemicals are expected and/or being monitored? What kind of measurements are being taken, and with what instruments? What threshold counts as an elevated reading? What is the impact on the community?” the report asks.

“When emergencies and spills happen, notifications can be life-saving,” the report adds. “But when notifications are vague and inaccessible, it is hard for community members to understand what is happening and respond appropriately.”

The Yellowhead Institute and the Technoscience Research Unit compiled a decade’s worth of notification data (from 2013 to 2023), and found 645 reported incidents. Visually mapping the notification data reveals the Aamjiwnaang First Nation is bearing the brunt of the chemical industry.